The People who put Alexander The Great into Retreat -The Gangaridai

The article is written by – Tim Steel


The immense wealth of the lands of the Ganges delta that form the heart of Bangladesh, has attracted both traders and invaders over the centuries.

Alexander the Great and the Macedonian cavalry crossing river Granicus

The last of whom might well have been, effectively, Pakistan, and as we all know they were preceded by the great invaders, the Khilji, the Mughals and the British.

But the first foreign power to eye the region’s wealth and the flourishing trading centre that grew from the later years of the 2nd millennium BCE drawing merchants from across the known world, was probably the Macedonia of Alexander the Great.

There can be little doubt that he would have been aware of the wealth and trade that two thousand years later drew the praise of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, in his immortal description of these lands as, “The paradise of nations, for its wealth and trade.’’

Of course, Aurangzeb’s father, Shah Jahan, famously moved the capital of Bengal to Dhaka, and sent his favourite son there as Viceroy.

Hecataeus of Miletus, a Greek historian produced a map around 500 BCE, which would certainly have been available to Alexander. In it, Herataeus was able to clearly mark a river, originating in the Himalayan range, flowing southeast, suggesting he was well informed about the cartography of the region.

Knowledge that only traders could possibly have given him. And when we consider the coinage of 600 BCE or so, from sites in Bangladesh, it is no real stretch to suppose that Alexander was not only aware of the peoples of the delta, but equally aware of the wealth to be looted there to support his military conquests.

It is his near contemporary, Megasthenes, the Greek traveller who is believed to have lived for a time in Patna, then the capital of the Magadha Kings, who first patronised Prince Gautama, the Buddha.

Subsequently the Mauryan Emperors, neighbours and possible allies to the peoples of the delta, recorded the Gangaridae peoples as mustering on the banks of the Ganges to resist invasion.

Alexander the Great at the Battle of Guagamela

It is certainly not without significance that in the 3rd century BCE, the Greek writer Apollonius of Rhodes, in rewriting the Homeric legend of the Golden Fleece, “Argonautica” about Jason and the Argonauts, included in his dramatis personae, Datis, a chief of the Gangaridae, operating in the Black Sea.

And, of course, by the 1st Century BCE, Virgil, the great Roman poet, celebrates, in his famous Georgics, “On the doors I will represent in gold and ivory the battle of the Gangaridai and the arms of our victorious Quirinius.”

It may reasonably be supposed that his materials for celebration were not randomly selected, but rather represented a part of what the trading centre in the delta lands had to offer.

In fact, there seems little doubt that, in the Greece of Alexander’s time, as later in Roman times, a voyage to Gangaridai, and the lands of the Ganges delta, would have been easily recognised as a voyage to adventure and wealth; yet today travel to those same lands, now called Bangladesh, would produce puzzled looks from many across the world.

What becomes apparent, reading the successive Greek and Roman commentators, is that Alexander wished to conquer these wealthy lands, but was turned back to retreat and early death, not only by the rivers for Alexander had successfully crossed a well defended Indus but by the awe inspired by the waters of the Ganges, and the forces gathered to oppose the crossing of the river. The forces of Gangaridai!

Over the succeeding centuries, historians seem to have enjoyed increasing their estimate of the size of those forces, but there is little doubt their numbers and military equipment suggest a fairly powerful and wealthy people, capable enough to deter even battle hardened warriors, and to have achieved a reputation reflected in some of those early writings, created thousands of miles away.

There continues to be fairly considerable confusion about exactly who the people of Gangaridai were and exactly which lands they inhabited, confusion which it is reasonable to deduce derives from two main difficulties.

The first is the lack of early archaeological evidence in the deltaic lands that are now Bangladesh, although, with limited resources, experts at Jahangirnagar University are slowly revealing the importance of the Narshingdi site at Wari Bateshar on the banks of the ancient course of the Brahmaputra, which it may be reasonable to suppose is one possible site of the capital city of Gangaridai.

Carbon dating is now helping to piece together some early history of the Ganges to help complete this picture.

Secondly exactly who they were, may yet take a while to assess. Writing in the 3rd century CE/AD, the Roman writer, Dionysius Peregetes, writes of the people of north east subcontinent. “Next come the wild tribes of the Peukalensians (who we may interpret as the Prasii), beyond whom lie the seats of the Gangaridae, worshippers of Bacchus.’’

Whilst it may be tempting to regard this as a literal observation, indicating substantial Roman influence, since Bacchus, the God of Wine and debauchery was widely worshipped in Rome, it seems more likely to be a reference to what can still be found in major centres of trade a shipping across the world a somewhat wild life to meet the expectations of sailors at the end of lengthy sea voyages.

We know from archaeological evidence that both Palaeolithic and Neolithic peoples inhabited these lands from at least 10,000 BCE, and as we know from better recorded history, wealthy lands throughout the ages have attracted an inevitable flow of migrants and could be expected here to have created the kind of rich diversity of peoples that fuels nations like Australia, Britain, Canada and the US today.

A further cause of confusion derives from India. Whilst most of the ancient writers are clear that the people of Gangaridai inhabited lands to the east of the Ganges river and the peoples known as the Prasii, whose capital was Patna, there have been considerable efforts by India to claim the Gangaridai lived west of the river. And, indeed, they have submitted as a World Heritage Site, the claim of a site close to Calcutta as that of the city of Ganges.

Such theorists may find grist in to their mill, in the Wikipedia translation of Megasthenes’ description of Gangaridai: “Now this river (Ganges) forming the eastern boundary of the Gangaridai.”

In fact, we have every reason to believe, not least from Megathenes’ own description of the width and depth of the Ganges as a barrier to advance, the river was, in all probability, the western boundary, forming the barrier between the Prasii and the Gangaridites.

Writing in the 3rd century BCE, Megasthenes noted the force lining the banks of the river to oppose the Macedonian army as a thousand cavalry, 700 elephants, and 60,000 infantry.

Writing 250 years later, in about 50 or 60 BCE, Diodorus Siculus, the Roman historian, notes 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots, and 4,000 war elephants’.

In about 100 CE/AD, the great Roman historian, Plutarch, had swollen the numbers to 80,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 8,000 chariots, and 6,000 war elephants.

One can only suppose that descendants of those who like Alexander’s army crept, tails between their legs, back to more western lands, were eager to exaggerate the opposition that scared them into retreat.

Whatever gloss contemporary and subsequent writers put on that humiliation of a previously all conquering army, which even in retreat, continued to chalk up other victories, one fact is beyond reasonable doubt. From at least the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, there existed, in the lands that are now the heartland of Bangladesh, the lands around the five great tributaries of the waters of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, a powerful, wealthy and internationally renowned kingdom, known to the world as Gangaridai.

This is the kingdom that, through succeeding millennia, kept the peace that permitted the Silk Road trade, from the interior of Asia, with the nations of South East Asia, and from Arabia and the Mediterranean, to survive and flourish. Gangaridai illustrates the great 18th century French philosopher, Baron de Montesquie’s famous dictum: “Peace is the natural consequence of trade.”

Although he may have forgotten that such trade, and the wealth it engenders, is always a temptation to conquerors!

Wealth comes in many forms. Bangladesh, today, has found, like the Gangaridites before them in the time of Rome, that the army can also be a great income earner, building reputation abroad for the nation as a peacekeeper.

To the outside observer, the reluctance of modern Bangladeshis to revel in their past seems somewhat surprising.

Today, much of the self confidence of Britons derives from a great empire once held; and the same is surely true of the Chinese too, who, today, in their rising affluence and power, offer to any nations once great, that a second time around can come!

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